Effects of the Government Shutdown on Environment Related Departments

We are now entering the third week of the federal government shutdown. It is important to note that this is only a partial shutdown, since many sectors of the government received funding through separately approved appropriations packages. Additionally, many of the agencies impacted by the shutdown were able to operate until roughly the end of the year since there were still some funds remaining from prior appropriations. However, agencies and employees have been feeling the effects of the shutdown since the beginning of the year and those impacts are starting to be felt more keenly throughout the country. Federal workers expecting their first paycheck of the year on Friday will not be receiving it unless the shutdown ends soon and there is really no end in sight.

Ironically, the government department responsible for protection at the border (the supposed issue behind the shutdown as represented by Trump’s border wall), the Department of Homeland Security, is one of the agencies feeling the squeeze. Customs and Border Protection officers are one of those groups of government employees that are generally considered essential (with of course some exceptions) and being forced to work through the shutdown with no expectation of timely pay. Transportation Security Agents protecting the airports also fall into that category. There have been reports that some TSA agents are calling in sick to work in greater numbers since the shutdown as they too have to work without receiving pay until the shutdown ends. The TSA has said that any impacts being felt at airports are merely the result of the end of the holiday travel season and not due to workers calling out sick.

The most obvious environmental related effect of the shutdown has been on National Parks. The National Park Service (NPS) is part of the Department of the Interior (DOI), which is one of the Departments currently without funding. Although many National Parks remain open for visitors, there are few employees working in the parks and no services being offered. Services include basics like cleaning restrooms, collecting garbage, and plowing access roads. Some private citizens or local communities where parks are located have been providing cleanup services or supplementing money to ensure that the parks remain open and usable for all to enjoy. The DOI has a website for the shutdown, which includes contingency plan information for all of the agencies located under its umbrella. Staffing levels at the NPS are being kept at the minimum level to provide for the protection of life, property, and public health and safety. Of a workforce of 24,681, the NPS is furloughing 21,383 workers leaving only 3,298 essential workers.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has many employees that fall into either the excepted or the exempt category. Excepted employees are those who perform essential activities for the protection of life and property and for law enforcement. Animal caretakers, law enforcement officers, and building security fall into this category. Exempt personnel perform activities that are paid for through carryover funding or appropriations that do not lapse. Employees in this category include animal caretakers, refuge management, law enforcement, fire management, and other emergency personnel. The National Conservation Training Center is mostly shut during this period, with only a few staff available for the security and safety of the facility.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is also impacted by the government shutdown. There is a notice on the website that it will not be updated regularly due to the lapse in appropriations, but that it would be updated in the event of an environmental emergency imminently threatening safety and/or property. The EPA also has a contingency plan for the shutdown. The EPA estimated that around 800 of the approximately 14,000 employees would remain working during the shutdown. These employees would perform functions either exempted or excepted from the shutdown. Some excepted activities are to support Superfund site work where a failure to respond could result in imminent threat to human life. Over 800 Superfund sites must be evaluated to see if they meet this criteria. EPA laboratories will be maintained to ensure that specimens and testing organisms remain viable. EPA emergency response readiness will maintain coordinators and readiness personnel to ensure that teams can respond to any emergency. In the event of an emergency, some workers would need to return to work to respond. Legal counsel will be allowed to remain at work for the minimum time necessary to provide support for the protection of life and property or if delays in litigation are not approved by the courts. Essentially, the EPA is planning to follow the DOJ plan for the 2011 shutdown.

A few environmental related activities fall under the Department of Commerce, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA). The Department of Commerce is affected by the shutdown, but many environmental activities will continue. Weather, water, and climate observation, prediction, forecast, warning, and support will remain functional. Law enforcement for enforcing marine fisheries will continue. Fisheries management, including overseeing quota and regulation will continue.

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